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Budgeteers Hashing Out Ed Funding, Use Of Coronavirus Money

Incoming House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.
Laurence Kesterson
Incoming House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s plans for its share of coronavirus relief and a potential boost in education funding are among the issues being negotiated as lawmakers and the governor entered the final week of their budget year on Thursday.

Leaders said the 2021-22 budget could wrap up this weekend, but details were scanty as high-level negotiations continued inside the Capitol.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, sounded an optimistic tone about the end game.

“I don’t think there’s anything tough left to do, it’s just all part of a process, there’s a lot of intricate parts,” Benninghoff said.

Rep. Peter Schweyer, a veteran Democratic member from Lehigh County, said it’s always a good bet that budget talks will take longer than projected.

“This time of year the Harrisburg rumor mill is the Harrisburg rumor mill,” Schweyer said. “It could be anything from a happy, kumbaya budget that’s going to fund education to everything’s catastrophically bad. And I’ve heard both, depending on who you talk to.”

Wolf in February asked the Republican-controlled Legislature to boost state spending to $37.8 billion for the 2021-22 fiscal year starting July 1. Including a supplemental cash request of more than $1 billion to cover cost overruns in the current fiscal year, Wolf is seeking authorization for nearly $6 billion more in new spending, or almost 18% more than this year’s $33.1 billion approved budget.

Stronger-than-expected tax collections turned last year’s projections of a multibillion-dollar deficit into a multibillion-dollar surplus. Budget analysts now project a surplus of just above $3 billion for the 2020-21 fiscal year ending June 30, or a total of just over $40 billion.

“The Pennsylvania House Democrats are fighting very hard to make sure we fairly fund the schools with the $3 billion dollar surplus,” said House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, adding that they also want hazard pay for front-line workers.

The current year’s $33.1 billion approved budget was balanced with more than $3.3 billion in federal pandemic aid and transferring more than $500 million from off-budget state accounts. Counting the federal pandemic aid, spending was almost $36.5 billion. In other words, using the federal pandemic aid lowered the reliance on state tax dollars from $36.5 billion to $33.1 billion.

The 2021-22 fiscal year budget also will rely on federal money that lowers the reliance on state tax dollars, it’s just a question of how much. Many Republicans want a big slice of it set aside for the coming years.

Wolf’s proposal carries what could approach $2 billion extra for public schools, an increase of more than 20%, although there are indications the Republican approach may be closer to $300 million.

The biggest part of Wolf’s request, $1.35 billion, would be distributed to schools to pay for their primary operations, such as teacher salaries, operating costs and supplies, on top of the $6.8 billion they currently receive.

The majority of that $8.1 billion total would go out through a 6-year-old school funding formula designed to iron out inequities in how Pennsylvania funds the poorest public schools. A portion of it — about $1.1 billion — would ensure that no school district receives less than it does now.

Pennsylvania barely uses that funding formula, and Wolf’s proposal comes as a trial nears in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by a handful of school districts that accuses the state of inadequately funding public education.

The final days of budget talks invariably are accompanied by deals on other issues. On Thursday, lawmakers were actively working on a deal to reauthorize mixed-drinks to go for restaurants.